The Technology of our Ancestors

Another recumbent rider who also blogs on WordPress recently wrote about the pros and cons of using ancient technology in preference to modern.  He makes a good point, and he was careful to moderate it with the phrase “a rule of thumb.”  He wrote, “I have developed a rule of thumb when evaluating if a health claim is true or not; If early humans did it, then it is good, otherwise it is bad.”

I didn’t want to instigate a long, drawn-out argument on his blog about this – mostly because I have no real argument – but I believe the subject does beg discussion, and this blog has been cooking in my mind for a couple of days now.

I have some of the same philosophies about life, though the rules are more complex.  I make every effort to buy local organic produce, for instance, and there are lots of farms here about, but coffee doesn’t grow in northern California, so there’s an exception right there.  And we aren’t giving up our computers.

Some of you know that I’m active in the Society for Creative Anachronisms, and that I have long studied the arts of the sword and the bow.  However, if a crazed rapist were to break into the house, you know I’d reach for the Smith & Wesson.  Even the most enthusiastic SCA-er will remind you that it’s “The middle ages as they should have been.”  Like, no Plague, we wear eye-glasses, and if you try to take away women’s suffrage, we’ll kill you with your own sword.

And, of course, there are some of us who simply wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for 21st Century medicine.

So, can we agree that some modern solutions are better than bronze age ones?

Let’s take a closer look at some ancestral solutions, though.   The first question we have to ask is, “Which ancestors?”  The ones from pre-electric 19th century, or shall we go back as far as Australopithecus?  I’m not running around naked on the African savannah for anybody.  The original blog was about shoes, and the earliest known shoes are from bronze-age Mesopotamia.  That’s still a long ways to go back.

Difficult to pick, huh?

There is a popular television show on NBC called Revolution, and the major premise is that the entire world has been plunged into a permanent black out because all of the electricity has been turned off.  Remember that scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still? (The superb 1951 version, not the bastardized 2008 one.)  Well, it’s not 1951 anymore, and the consequences are even more dire.  Suddenly, we’re back to 19th Century agrarian communities.

Revolution is escapist post-apocalypse fantasy, though certainly not as much so as the book Dies the Fire (one of my absolute fave books, by the way!) Have you ever worked a farm using 19th Century technology?  I have.  It’s fun for about a week.  After that it’s just hard work, and lots of it.  And quite frankly, I don’t believe the current world’s population could be fed that way.

So, where do I stand on this issue?  Well, like almost everything else, it depends on the details.

More musings on this at another time.


More on Zombies and Traditional Archery

I still can’t believe that I got into this conversation about zombies and archery. Both topics are trending right now, due in part to a spat of movies featuring heroic archers – Liongate’s The Hunger Games, Pixar’s Brave, and Marvel Comic’s The Avengers. There is, perhaps, some synergistic effects from the London Olympics. You would not believe the circus that our Sunday Public Outreach has become at San Francisco Archers. It has become so popular that we have had to, sadly, turn people away.  There was even talk of giving people pagers and taking reservations. However, the current archery fever will eventually burn out, as it always does.  The typical teenager’s attention will be occupied by the next Hollywood topic du jour, and our Outreach sessions will return to sanity.

As to the popularity of zombies – who knows? They must appeal to some dark corner of our cultural mindset.  I’ve often thought of them as a metaphor for mindless consumerism.  


Norman Reedus as survivor Daryl Dixon on AMC’s The Walking Dead.

So, have you seen AMC’s series The Walking Dead? Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the show follows a small group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse in Georgia, USA. One of the characters, Daryl Dixon, uses a crossbow to both hunt for dinner and to off zombies. In the universe of The Walking Dead, the only way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain. Don’t think to much on this, just go with it.

I let myself get involved in an online discssion on this topic, and a user who identified himself or herself as a bowhunter commented that the character should use a compound bow, because the rate of fire is much faster.

I agreed, and added that a recurve has an even faster rate of fire, and hitting something the size of a human head from 30 yards (27 m) was a piece of cake, with decreasing probability from there.  

To which the bowhunter gave a surprisingly angry response. “You’re not going to be able to hit somebody in the head using traditional archery at 30 yards!”

Huh? I briefly considered posting this person’s internet ID on the SCA archery forums and other traditional archery sites, but that would be just mean.  

I believe most compound shooters vastly underestimate the value of traditional archery. Many become addicted to the gadgets, and simply wouldn’t have the first idea of how to aim a traditional recurve or longbow, and they simply have not seen good traditional archery.

So, I’m thinking: Why not make a video? Set up a course at the archery range using those styrofoam wig-thingies that look like robot heads, and then invite my trad-shooting friends to show off their skills? Unmarked yardage. Maybe I can even set up a few to move like zombies. I need to think about this some more.

The 31st Annual Great Dickens Christmas Faire

Last weekend, Beth and I decided to continue our annual visit to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair and Victorian Holiday Party.  I wrote about this last year, too, and won’t spend a lot of time on it here, only to mention that we had a great time in spite of the gate cost.

What amazes me every year is that in an era of mass commercial production of goods, there exists an entire subculture economy of people who still hand-craft their products.  We had a pleasant conversation with a couple who make clothes and sell them not only at the Dickens Fair but all of the Renaissance Faires and SCA events, too.   You can visit their website at

The cost of these goods is considerably more than what you’ll find at retailers like Target and Wal-Mart.  Quality hand-crafted goods will always be more expensive.  But if you’re the kind of person who would rather buy the cheap plastic crap at those stores, then the Dickens Fair/Renaissance Faire/SCA really isn’t for you anyway.

We spent most of our time taking in the stage shows and other presentations, which were free if you don’t count the gate cost.  We splurged and bought some roasted chestnuts and fudge, but for the most part the food was way over priced, and the argument could not be made that it was hand-crafted.

Esperanto – the basic and the abstract

There are two beginning students, komencantoj, at the Stanford class on conversational Esperanto.  Since they are already polyglots, they are picking the language up quickly.  However, they still have a difficult time following advanced conversation.

Why is this? you might ask. Isn’t Esperanto supposed to be the easiest language in the world to learn?

Yes, and basic Esperanto is a breeze.  “La ĉielo estas blua.” “Mi malsatas. Ni manĝu.” “Kie estas la necesejo?”  “La plumo de mia onklino estas sur la tablo.”  “Mi donis libon al Karlo.”

Very basic.  Very concrete.  And if we were, say, a race of hounds who live only in the moment and only think about things they can see, taste and smell, that would be all that would be required of any language.  But human thought involves so much more than the current moment, concrete nouns and simple verbs.  We think abstractly, hypothetically and subjunctively.  We talk about things we can only infer without actually witnessing.  I have heard it said that without the subjunctive, one can only speak Italian with a limp.  I would say the same about any language.

Once ideas become more complex, the language must accommodate or it’s useless to humans.  With humans, conversations turn abstract with very little prompting, and the komencantoj quickly become lost.  Fortunately, the problem is solved with practice and familiarity.

An example of this is illustrated by the translation of the phrase, describing the Society for Creative Anachronism, “The Middle Ages as they should have been.”

The best I could do was, “La Mezepoko kiel ĝi devintus.”  (There is nothing illegal about the use of the word devintus though many experienced esperantists have warned me about it.  The preferred usage evidently is ” … kiel ĝi estus devinta.” though that sounds awkward to me.  And if you google the word devintus you’ll find it used other places by quite fluent esperantists.  “It’s not common usage,” some will complain.  But “… should have been” also is not a common phrase.)  We are talking about the conditional past.  How more abstract can you get?  It’s easy to talk about the conditional future, even the conditional present.  But the conditional past? As if the past were a malleable thing? Generally a topic for geeks, eh?  Only a first class language could tackle that.  Is Esperanto, by this definition, a first class language?  You tell me.  For my money, the nunaj komencantoj will be slinging the subjunctive lingo inside six months.  A year tops.


SCA Archery and the Labors of Hercules

On August 8th, 2009, the Shire of Cloondara, which is the SCA equivalent of San Francisco, California, hosted its annual Debardchery contest, a combination of archery and bardic contests.  As Archery Mistress, I ran the archery part.  It takes pretty much all year to plan and pull this off.

The Hydra from the Labors of Hercules as a homemade 3D target.

The Hydra from the Labors of Hercules as a homemade 3D target.

The theme of the even was the 12 Labors of Hercules, and we made our own targets.  Here you can see the Hydra.  The rest of the targets were painted on cardboard.  We used the Stymphalian birds as speed targets – The archer could shoot as many arrows as possible in thirty seconds.  There were six small targets, about six inches across, places between 5 and 10 meters distant.  The archer had to shoot each target once before shooting any target twice.

Debardchery 2009 Stymphalian Birds target

Debardchery 2009 Stymphalian Birds target

SCA Archery is restricted to traditional archery gear and wooden arrows, however the construction of the equipment is often modern.  After all, it is called “creative anachronism.”  This is due to the fact that “period” archery gear is near impossible to find on the commercial market, and most amateur archers are not comfortable building their own bows.  We’re comfortable making our own period garb, but functional weaponry, not so much.  There is, however, a “period archery” division in inter-kingdom competition. But if we insisted on strictly medieval construction for bows and arrows, we wouldn’t have many archers.  However, if you want to talk about homemade bows, I can publish some posts on that.

We're comfortable making our own period garb.  Functional weaponry, not so much.

We're comfortable making our own period garb. Functional weaponry, not so much.

Medieval women shooting modern bow

We had a record turn out this year.  Thirty-three medieval archers ranging in skill level from “I’ve never held a bow before in my life!” to “Yeah, I practice every day for an hour before work.”  We separated archers as best we could into five separate skill levels.

The distances to the targets ranged from 5 meters to 45 meters.  However, one 12-year old intrepid longbowmen was allowed to shoot from 30 meters max, as his bow was not able to cast 45 meters.

My schedule for the weekend was a simple one: Saturday – Debardchery.  Sunday – the Cupid’s Gate tourney, which is a “mundane” or real world competition.  So of course, I woke up Saturday morning with a fever and a hoarse voice.  One of the Shire heralds was kind enough to be my voice for the day.  However, she couldn’t compete for me in the Cupid’s Gate, so I regretfully did not participate.

Wooden Arrows. Worth the Effort?

This weekend, January 17th and 18th, will be heavy with archery.  In fact, I’ll be surprised if I can tote this load successfully.

On January 17th, I’ll be participating in Darkwood‘s Winter Archery Tourney and Hawk’s Feast. This means using a longbow and cedar arrows.  The very next day is the Cabin Fever Shoot, where I’ll be using a traditional recurve with aluminum arrows.

I have often threatened to start a Yahoogroup called I Hate Wooden Arrows, though truly only in jest.  They are a pain in the pancreas and frustrating to use.  They warp and break easily, they absorb and lose water even if you seal them carefully, and you have to make your own.

You are welcome to purchase wooden arrows from the archery store, and you’ll be lucky to get a set that come anywhere close to being matched for spine and mass.  Then you’ll have to resort to memorizing which ones shoot high, low, right, left and any combination of those.  If you want to minimize this inconvenience, you roll your own.

Which means finding a good source of port oxford cedar, investing in some specialized tools and the tools to make some of these tools, and spending a lot of time getting it right.  At first, you’ll waste a lot of time and energy making very expensive kindling.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find an artisan who has been doing this for a couple of lifetimes to help you out.

Eventually, you’ll start cranking out some pieces of art that look suspiciously like cedar arrows.  Then you start thinking, Do I really want to shoot these arrows?  Can’t I just put them on display somewhere?

When your arrows break or get tweaked, it hurts all the more because they are something that came from your soul, not just your wallet.

I have been laboring to make a set of arrows for use at Darkwood, and have managed to get them to within ten grains and five pounds spine.   Knowing that if I don’t hit the target, they’ll likely shatter on a rock will do wonders for my aiming ability.

Anno Societatis D (Year of the Society 500)

We attended the Dickens’ Faire yesterday and had a great time!  They took a large warehouse and decorated the inside to resemble Christmas time Victorian era London, and a large number of actors and reenactors played characters out of the numerous works of Charles Dickens, and other 19th Century English authors.  For instance, we also met Mr. Phileas Fogg.  

To answer your first question, yes — there was no sign of tuberculosis or air pollution, and there was only oratorical mention of 16 hour work days for the working class.  This was a “feel good” experience, ‘k?

We were given the opportunity to purchase period wares at incredibly inflated prices, but mostly we walked from venue to venue to see the free shows.  (Free if you don’t count the tip jar.)  We especially enjoyed the dancing.

We don’t own any period garb from the 1850’s, and we felt that we missed out on quite a bit because of this.  There was a huge percentage of non-theatricals who were dressed in appropriate garb.  It was a clear instance of participatory theatre.

I have often wondered how historical recreationists of the future, say the year 2500 of the Current Era, will portray our own society.  How will they dress?  How will they act?  What events will they celebrate?  How will they talk?

I suspect that they will use 20th Century literature as a source.  This is, after all, what recreationists do today.  Perhaps they’ll use Jack Kerouac, John SteinbeckErnest Hemingway, perhaps even Mickey Spillane.  And, just as recreationists do today, there will be a mixture of eras and characters who would normally never meet.  For instance, I foresee Beatniks hanging out with flappers, rock stars, migrant farmers, old sailors, hippies, gumshoes and astronauts.  Also, there’s no reason to expect them to restrict themselves to American literature, but I’m not familiar enough with the literature of other cultures to list them.

I anticipate that there will be endless discussions of the meaning of the words “Dude,” “cool” and “like”.  There will be vendors who specialize in creating period garb using denim, zippers and Velcro.  Those who are interested in the martial aspects of our culture will spend a lot of research trying to make M-16’s, Uzi’s and AK-47’s safe for reinactment battles.  I suspect that they won’t reinact My Lai for the same reason we don’t reinact tuberculosis, but maybe they will be a more honest reinactors, so who knows.

What is it about our current society that you think will fascinate the world of 2500 c.e.?  The advent of nuclear power/weapons? The birth of the Space Age?  The rise and fall of Communism?  American Imperialism?  The Century of the Automobile?  Aviation? The wars for oil?  

I would love to hear your thoughts.